This week, I took a deep breath and tackle one of the bigger problem zones. This consisted of a hoard of magazines, piles of unsorted papers, mail and notes, and a plastic bag stuffed with tangled electronics.
Part of my simples challenge will be to simplify my finances, so I tracked all my expenditure in the month of October. I've identified several areas where I could easily make savings, and one of these is on snacks.
I have no self will. I have no ability to resist the temptation of the chocolate bar or the packet of biscuits. I know this. I didn't realise how I much I was actually spending on snacks during the week - around €3-5 a week! Gosh!
I have recently discovered the Channel 4 series SuperScrimpers - HOW did I not know of this before? This treasure trove consists of (almost) four series chock full of tips to save money, from big things like debt management to the teeniest tiniest penny. I can feel myself becoming even more of a penny pincher by the episode, and I'm really looking forward to trying out some of the many tips.
My lovely lovely boyfriend gave me this. Not for any particular reason but just as a nice gesture. I'm always so touched by these simple gifts - probably disproportionately so! He always gets me a potted plant rather than cut flowers because they last longer and are (presumably) less damaging to the environment, and as I'm the opposite of green-fingered and usually end up killing the plants through over- or under-watering, he gets plants in a pot I can reuse after the plant has gone the way of all things. This awareness and consideration of my preferences on even the most minor detail is what moves me and makes me so appreciative of my special man.
I start most mornings, like so many people, with a bowl of cereal. I tend to pimp this up a bit by adding oats or seeds and raisins, but I've never made my own cereal before. While browsing blogs a while ago, I stumbled across this recipe for toasted muesli by Easy Peasy Organic.
It's taken me a while to get around to trying this out, but I'm a convert already. It took me about half an hour to make this batch, which is about half the volumes of the recipe. I reckon this would last me just over a week, and there are endless variations of nuts, seeds and dried fruit! This batch includes oats, ground almonds, linseeds and sunflower seeds, with prunes and raisins. I couldn't resist it and just had to try it, and I've found it tastes like a flapjack in a bowl - far from boring!
The last two weeks have been a bit insane here - my mother has been in hospital and I've spent a week in the UK to be near her, which has also meant a lot of work piling up here. So in this context, I think i'ts probably okay that I have missed a week, and that this week's step in the Simples challenge is a bit of a cheat.
Baking soda is fantastic for cleaning stainless steel. I have recently allowed my sink to get into a terrible state - oh the shame! But take a look at the effects of five minutes with some baking soda and a damp cloth.
It really is blindingly simple. Scatter some baking soda over the sink, scrub with a damp cloth and then rinse. Buff dry with a rag or tea towel for extra shine. So what are you waiting for? Go make your sink shiny!
Following the completion of the second set of miniature stocking advent calenders, I am being very focused and non-spontaneous. I am aiming to finish off ALL of my works in progress before I start on anything new. I have several on the go, which is adding to the clutter and mess of my crafting supplies. I am working up to sorting through these supplies but want to do myself the favour of clearing as much out of the way as possible before I do so.
I'm not sure how much this particular bit counts, as I wasn't so much decluttering as reorganising. There was no food that needed throwing out, but the new layout is much tidier and keeps the counter top much clearer, giving us more work space and also making it easier to wipe down the surfaces and keep it all lovely and clean.
A perfect Saturday morning. Homemade biscuits and fresh tea enjoyed next to a bouquet of cut flowers. This unusual extravagance is thanks to my boss, who said that as we had no vases at work, I should bring these flowers home with me. I wasn't about to complain!
As a renter, there really isn't much that you can do to prepare your home for winter, but keeping your drains clear is an easy and cheap way to avoid a potentially much bigger problem. While as a renter you probably wouldn't have to pay for the repairs, you would certainly have to live with the problem, and you just know that the pipes would burst on Christmas Eve or a bank holiday weekend.
Cleaning drains is incredibly easy. You need those two reliable, trusty friends - baking soda, and white vinegar.
I have finally - finally! - finished the second miniature stocking advent calendar. I completed one of these for each of my two young cousins, and it has taken me about two years to do both. Finally I can sit back and relax! (Well, not quite - I have a few more Christmas presents to work on!)
The stockings sure do look cute, but boy did they take some work! Each stocking contains four pieces of cotton cut to my own homemade template. One piece of cotton is embroidered with sequins to make the number, then the four sheets are pinned together with a ribbon, marked using a second template and stitched. I trip the seam, turn them right side out, turn down the 'cuff' and hem it into place. The end result is a stocking with no visible stitches, which can be turned inside out without revealing its hem and which has a different colour for the lining than for the outside.
This one is in yellow, blue, orange and green for the boy cousin, J. The previous model was in myriad shades of purple, pink and blue for the girl cousin, E. The idea is that they can eventually fill one another's advent calendar with chocolates, notes or artwork - or nasty surprises, knowing them! I'm really glad I made these, because I know they will treasure them for years - but never again!
I'm tackling another cupboard this week. The handbag collection. This is currently 'stored' (read: tossed in a careless fashion) on the floor of the cupboard used for long dresses and work shirts. I'm not one of those women with a handbag for every occasion. In fact, once I got the bags out onto the table, the vast majority of items in the pile were overnight bags and sponge bags.
Phew! It's been a long old slog. I've worked right through the last weekend, often ten or more hours day, and today is my first day off in twelve days so I am totally knackered. So this picture completely expresses the big sigh of happiness first thing this morning, as I sit down with a freshly brewed pot of loose leaf tea and some nice writing paper to catch up on my correspondence. I've been experimenting with different photo effects on Picasa, and this one, called "Holga-ish", adds a nice soft-focus, calm feeling.
Of course, during the busy period, I've fallen off a lot of wagons. Buying sandwiches instead of baking bread, letting the laundry fall behind, not laying out my clothes each morning. I'm going to try to use this three-day weekend to get back on track with most of these things, finish up some craftiness and get a wriggle on with the Christmas presents - but there will also be time for hot chocolate, Downton Abbey and snuggling up under a blanket with a good book.
This week it was the turn of the bathroom cupboard. It has been slowly invading the bathroom floor. Empty containers vying for space with endless products that are no longer used. I even found two more sponge bags - why do I hoard them? I've no idea. These are all mixed in with an increasing number of ingredients for homemade toiletries - various oils and flower waters.
My crafty mojo has been sadly lacking recently. What I really needed was a simple, easy project whose benefits could be immediately enjoyed. I turned to Cheryl's how-to for Lavender Soap Scrubs over at Time to Craft. As I used mine for a luxurious long soak in the bathtub rather than a shower, I found myself thinking of them as bath bags.
If you haven't visited Time to Craft, you absolutely must - there are loads of easy crafty and baking tutorials, and most are designed to be done for or with children. So head on over there right now!
When I normally try to have a clear out, usually what I do is gather up all the useless bits and bobs from around the house and dump them next to the bed. As my bedside table is next to the eaves of the roof, stuff shoved under said table or under the bed is pretty much out of sight, out of mind.
Not this time! And just to mix things up a bit, I'm going to start with the AFTER picture - because it's so lovely!
I use this cleaner in the kitchen, the bathroom, and for cleaning windows, tables, doors, walls... Basically, everything. It works fantastically well, cuts through grease and limescale and soap scum, and leaves surfaces shiny. As it has tea tree oil in it, it also acts as a mild antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal, but is completely fine to use around asthmatics.
It's really, really complicated. Seriously. It will take you ages. Are you ready?
Visitors to my blog today may have noticed some... ahem... changes. I have changed the template and banner of the blog. It was about time - the previous layout was cluttered and I felt the colours were distracting from the photos I am increasingly using. Since I am trying to simplify things, I thought - why not simplify my blog as well? It looks much cleaner now, with the colours standing out more vividly. Plus sometimes it's good to change things around.
A lot of winterising post and advice I have seen is targeted at changes to the house - but you also need to get your clothes and shoes ready for winter. Shoes in particular! They need to be warm, comfortable and rain-and-snow-resistant.
Put away your summer shoes (sandals etc) and get out all your sturdier shoes. Check the heels and soles, and get them repaired if necessary. If your shoes are leather, give them a thorough treatment - you can buy products to help keep leather waterproof, but I use my homemade shoe polish as the beeswax does that beautifully. If your shoes don't fit or have holes, now is the time to go out and buy a new pair - you don't want to find yourself without suitable footwear when the snow starts getting slushy. While you're at it, check that you also have warm socks that extend as far up your leg as the boots.
If like me you live in an urban area, you are unlikely to have a pair of wellies or walking boots. While you probably can't wear these at work, I get a lot of use out of my sturdy walking boots for trips to the supermarket, and walking to and from work (I change shoes when I get there.) My feet thank me, I save on damage to my other shoes, and I can walk around more quickly and safely with the better grip.
I'm really enjoying the planning stage of the simplifying - identifying what can go, what needs to stay, and what I don't yet have (eg storage containers). I am finding that as I go along, I usually manage to solve the puzzle - I spot something somewhere else that is unnecessary there and can be repurposed in another room. In fact, I have already thought of some better uses for items I have already thrown out, but that's just tough.
As I have recently acquired a new coat, and with winter coming on, I made my next target the coat cupboard. Take a look at it. It's 'orrible!
One of the things I miss most about England is the vast array and variety of charity shops. I grew up in a small Bucks town, and the high street had more charity shops than newsagents, grocers, supermarkets and cafes combined.
In Brussels, there is much less of a culture of this kind of shop. In fact, I have only been able to identify two such shops in the whole of Brussels, and one of them is on my street. Yippee!
They are staffed by volunteers and so have opening hours which mean I very rarely get inside. However, on Saturday, I walked past and saw a coat in the window that I fell in love with, so I worked through lunch on Monday to be able to leave work early and I dashed to the Oxfam.
There are many blog entries and articles about preparing for winter around on the internet, not to mention in books about green living and self-sufficiency. However, most of these assume that you own your own home and can therefore make changes to the roofing, insulation, windows, heating systems and so on. There's not a lot out there for renters, so I'm exploring what I can do in my home.
The first thing is to bleed your radiators. All you need for this is a radiator bleeding key and something to mop up water eg a rag or kitchen towel. A radiator bleeding key can be bought cheaply from DIY stores - I got mine from Brico. Instructions are below and can also be found here.
As we are on the top floor of the building, air accumulates very quickly in our radiators and we bleed them several times each winter. They usually tell us when they need bleeding - the apartment gets very, very cold! We were freezing last week, but after bleeding the radiators on Friday, it's lovely and snugly and warm now!
Have you ever found yourself juggling your many bags at the checkout, trying to pay with only one hand, when your phone rings and you spend ages rifling through your overcrowded bag, while people queuing get restless and you try to avoid spilling essential things?
That happened several times this week. So I thought it was about time for week 2 of the Simples challenge.
First I got together my decluttering kit. A lit candle, a meringue, a glass of water and a jazz CD. Who says that simple living can't involve a dash of glamour?
Then I emptied my bag and laid it all out on a table.
Last Saturday I decided to make a change to my routine to make it easier, and over the week I mulled over this topic, ending up not with hot spiced wine but with a more developed challenge to myself - to make one change a week to simplify my home and my life, focusing particularly on those aspects of the simple life philosophy which I find difficult, such as routine, organisation, decluttering and time management.
I'm calling this challenge the Simples challenge. For week one, I decided to lay out my clothes each evening for the following day. I've tried it before, but always left it too late into the evening. Now I am doing this as soon as I get home from work, when I get changed into jeans and a t-shirt (or civvies, as we used to call them at school).
My work clothes are laid out over the arm on the left, and my running kit on the seat.
Since I started this blog, I've been on a journey. The focus has shifted slightly but significantly.
When I started writing, I wanted to live an eco-friendly lifestyle. But I quickly found that as soon as any conflict arose, I abandoned by alleged green principles. Green is awesome, but I wasn't about to turn down an invitation to spend a month in Argentina with my boyfriend to meet his parents and his friends. Plus I love hot baths too much.
This morning, I woke up, and it felt different. Odd. Weird.
Then my boyfriend commented that today is an auto-free day. Ahah!
As a city dweller who grew up in a more suburban, almost rural environment, I miss quiet, reflective days. I miss sitting on a fence listening to the wind in the trees. But today, I don't miss the countryside as much as I normally do. Brussels is a very green city, with plenty of parks and trees and people-spaces, but today without the cars, it's blissful. It feels quiet and calm and restful, tranquil and pensive. And there are so many people. People on rented bicycles, walking, playing with their children in the streets.
Best way to start the weekend, methinks? Meringues that have been in the oven overnight, and a pot of fresh coffee. I feel so decadent! Let's hope this continues.
I have been mulling recently about building routines that work for me.
I have observed a pattern in my behaviour, when it comes to keeping my space (both home and work) tidy, organised and clean. I have a period of enthusiasm lasting maybe 2 weeks to one month, in which I keep everything immaculate and find endless energy for sorting old piles and tackling odd jobs that build up.
This is followed by a period of one to two months of sloth and lethargy, when I can see that the floor needs to be hoovered and my intray at work piles higher and higher, but for some reason I let it get on top of me.
So what is it about Great British Bake Off that has me dusting off my apron and tutting at the poor array of baking equipment in my cupboard? (Seriously. Can't even do a Victoria sponge.)
I seem to have been bitten by the baking bug. In the last week, I have made: one loaf of white bread with linseeds (and who'd have thought that the humble linseed could so totally transform bread?); one batch of rotis, ginger and oat cookies, chocolate chip and walnut biscuits, and now I have a teeny tiny batch of meringues in the oven. I've never made meringues before, but I've been meaning to try for a while, and with an egg white left over from the biscuits, I thought - why not? The world's smallest batch of meringue ever made. Fingers crossed they come out well.
I have been experimenting with no-poo methods again. The summer is a good time to do this - with fewer conferences and everyone on holidays, I can go to work with greasy hair and not worry. And I have finally, FINALLY reached a stable, clean-looking no poo solution.
Well, how I make my own moisteuriser, anyway. I have been experimenting with homemade options and natural things like aloe vera gel, sweet almond oil, but everything has left my skin feeling tight and dry after a few days to a week. I have been using only this to nourish my face for almost a month and I love love LOVE it!
OK so I don't know if this will work for everyone, but I find this teeny tiny little tip helps me make the washing up liquid go further whilst also washing things more effectively - less scrubbing required.
It is simply this: dilute your washing up liquid with white vinegar. You could also use lemon juice for this, it would smell better, but I can get cheaper white vinegar than lemon juice so I use that. I use an old washing up liquid dispenser, and in it I mix about one part vinegar to two parts washing up liquid. If you have sensitive skin, this may not be great for your hands, but it really cuts through grease a lot more easily, and one tiny dribble (it is now pouring rather than squeezing consistency) is enough for the nastiest pots and pans.
I have pondered making my own out of castile soap at some point, but am still struggling to identify a local source of castile soap. And how would a few drops of essential oil go with the mix, do you think?
I so want to go no poo. I so want to do it. I want to walk into a room and have someone go, wow your hair looks nice, and feel smug about my no-poo-ness. I have been trying to master this for years. There is generally a 2-6 week transition period, while your hair gets used to the no-poo. I once went three whole months without washing my hair in anything but water, and it was still yucky. I have switched over to other methods (baking soda and vinegar rinses, conditioner only, good old fashioned soap) countless times and always end up back on the shampoo.
Finally! This morning I finished the last of these teeny tiny stockings. It's taken me quite a lot longer than I expected - hence a project intended for a birthday present last November has only been completed now.
Squee! I have discovered this method of folding towels/sheets/blankets. It's so simple but it makes so much difference - not just visually, but they hold their shape so much better, and don't subside into a disordered pile, with some blankets escaping back behind the table and getting dusty.
Is it so sad that I'm actually really happy about this - it's a tiny little thing but it makes me smile...
So three and a half weeks in to the no-poo experiment - it's beginning to look a bit greasy (but then I did last wash it two days ago). I've been trying to get as little baking soda as possible on the length to avoid stripping them out, but I think that's making my scalp greasier quicker, too, as the oil accumulates on the hairbrush.
This week, I had a go at making bread more simply - used more water, warmed it up first, and added extra yeast and a few linseeds. It worked better! Felt more bread-like after kneading, and it actually rose!! I think there were definitely too many linseeds in the other loaf, and also not enough water, so somehow the magic couldn't take place.
Yay! for minor successes - do you think I can keep this up?
So this week I had a go at making this from a recipe in my new book - it's just beeswax and olive oil melted together. One thing I learned by trial and error - it needs to be stirred while cooling, otherwise you get a layer of olive oil floating on top of a layer of solid beeswax.
Today I had a go. I did the right shoe of a pair of black court shoes and of a pair of brown boots - and it's come up a right treat! Chek 'em out:
Ok so this really is abysmal! This is the sock I started knitting last August, and I have done almost nothing! It's mostly my fault - for choosing an elaborate pattern with thin wool and small needles, so it's taking aaaages to knit up. I've thought several times about ripping it out and making something else with the wool, but so far no brainwaves so perhaps I'd better just finish.
It is so easy to feel that whatever we are doing is not enough - there are so many fantastic examples out there on the web of things people make themselves. I recently saw a tutorial for making a seriously professional-looking wallet. I fully expect to see someone posting about making their own umbrella at some point.